Ice Ax Buyer’s Guide

So, you’ve decided to get into winter mountaineering. Forget that you’d benefit exponentially more from snowshoes, trekking poles, a softshell, goggles, a pair of mittens or myriad other essentials – it’s time to get sexy with it. There’s no faster way to decorate your pack and impress your friends than purchasing an ice ax.

Choosing your ideal ax can be daunting. They come in many different shapes, sizes and, most importantly, colors. Depending on the kind of climbing you plan to pursue, do you need a traditional piolet, all-around ice tools, wickedly curved mixed tools, or a highly specialized hybrid? The answer is almost assuredly some sort of combination. It took me three years and a few wasted Benjamins to arrive at my ideal quiver, and now that I have a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the ice ax market, here’s a gentle rundown of what’s out there.

The Traditional Piolet

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Characterized by a long, straight shaft and a pick with a positive curve (envision a rainbow), piolets are the old guard of the ice ax world. Almost everyone owns one, whether you’re Noob McSelfie or Ueli Steck. Excepting steep, technical routes, this is all you need for winter/spring 14ers, the standard routes on most Pacific Northwest volcanoes, El Pico de Orizaba, the West Buttress of Denali and so on. If you’re reading this because you’re in search of your first ice ax, you likely need a piolet. I believe that’s French for backpack ornament.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Every brand brings something a little different to the table. They range in size from 50cm to upwards of 75cm. Some have a hammer, some have an adze. A few have rubber grips and pinky rests. What exactly is all that used for, and what do you need?

Let’s start with size. When holding a piolet in self-arrest grip (read Freedom of the Hills or take a class), you should just be able to touch your ankle bone with the spike. If you’re torn between two different sizes, I recommend going shorter. A trekking pole is a better option in most situations where you’d want a longer ax, and shorter shafts are easier to wield on steep terrain.

Keep your piolet as simple as possible. Rubber grips, pinky rests and bent shafts are best kept on technical tools and hybrids. These other options, which I’ll dive into next, will also likely have a hammer. For that reason, I suggest getting a classical ax with an adze.

Most outdoor retailers will carry three or four different brands of straight-shafted piolets. The truth is, other than what color matches your pack the best, there’s not much difference. Hold them in your hand, swing them around, decided how much you’re willing to spend and pick whichever tugs at your heart strings.

The All-Around Ice Tool

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The three big differences between an ice tool and a piolet are a curved shaft, a radically shorter length and a pick with a reverse curve (imagine, well, an upside-down rainbow). Don’t let the “all-around” title confuse you; these are meant for ice climbing. They can perform the functions of a traditional mountaineering ax in a pinch, but nowhere near as effectively. Trying to self-belay or self-arrest with an ice tool is expert-only stuff.

You should buy a pair of all-around tools if you want to (duh) go ice climbing, or a single all-around tool to pair with a piolet or a hybrid if you see semi-technical routes in your future. Comfort levels vary from climber to climber, but once a slope angle noses over 50-55 degrees, I prefer to have a second tool in addition to my piolet. One piolet/hybrid and one ice tool is the system of choice for classic routes such as the Kautz Glacier or Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, the Adams Glacier on Mt. Adams, the East Slope of Mt. Bross and so on.

The reverse-curved pick is super grippy, even if only plunged into ice a few millimeters. The downside is this stickiness also applies when trying to self-arrest. If your technique is off, the tool is likely to get ripped out of your hands and become a flailing projectile hungry for puncture wounds.

As mentioned above, I strongly suggest ice tools with hammers. An adze is dangerous on ice or mixed routes, where a popped tool’s most likely landing place is your upper lip. Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer might be unpleasant, but hitting yourself in the face with a glorified knife is a hospital visit and a significant other who might never look at you with the same lustful gaze. In situations where an adze might be desirable, which are rare to begin with, you’re likely going to have a hybrid or a piolet along as well.

The best advice I can give for purchasing ice tools is to demo as many as possible before investing. The weight, swing angle and grip can wildly differ between tools that look more or less the same. Figure out your preferences before being stuck with a $500 pair that, to you, feels like swinging wooden clubs coated in bacon fat.

The Mixed Tool

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Welcome to the second-briefest entry in this blog post. A mixed tool is an all-around tool on steroids. The curves on the shaft and pick are more wicked, the handles are beefier and the people that use them effectively are the demi-gods of the climbing world. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want or need mixed tools. These are used for scraping up blank rock faces with the occasional smear or pillar of ice. Most lack both an adze and a hammer for the face- and relationship-destroying reasons discussed above.

The Hybrid Tool

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I’ve used the term “hybrid ax” about a half-dozen times now, and they’re the most confusing category in the modern ice-ax market. In general, they are a cross between a piolet and an all-around ice tool. Gear companies have the freedom to be creative here. The design elements and included features vary considerably from brand to brand, and not all hybrid tools are created equal.

Speaking generally, a hybrid tool is shorter than a traditional piolet, has a slightly bent shaft and includes some sort of feature that makes it easier to swing like an ice tool, such as a rubber grip or a pinky rest. They come both with positive- and negative-curved picks, with some brands allowing for these to be interchangeable. Because hybrids are meant for more experienced climbers with developed preferences, I’ll leave the adze vs. hammer and positive vs. negative curve decisions up to you. I personally like my hybrid tools with an adze and a positive pick.

These are best for routes where you’ll be spending a lot of time on steep terrain and most people would prefer two ice tools, but there’s also a long easy-angled approach. Think glaciers. A hybrid won’t arrest, plunge or act as a cane as well as a piolet. It also won’t climb steep ice as well as an ice tool. What it does do is provide a bridge over the gap when you can’t decide which of those others to bring.

Hybrid tools carry more street cred than a traditional piolet and benefit from slick marketing campaigns, meaning many beginners skip straight to them. That’s fine, especially if you see yourself quickly moving into more technical routes, but understand that hybrids are generally much heavier and more expensive than a piolet.

My preferred system for AI2-3 glacier routes or very steep (55+ degree) snow routes is a medium-length (57-62cm) hybrid paired with an all-around ice tool. If I’m doing a more traditional snow climb, I save weight and bring my piolet at the expense of not impressing as many trailmates.

The Red-Headed Stepchildren

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Innovation is required to stay at the forefront of the outdoor industry. There are many piolets and ice tools that don’t fit into any of the above categories. I’m looking at you, Grivel. CAMP USA also makes several featherweight options designed for ski mountaineering, adventure racing and high-altitude. Once again, if you’re in the market for one of these specialized tools, you probably quit reading about 1,000 words ago.

For the record, my quiver:

  • 65cm Black Diamond Raven (piolet)
  • 52cm Petzl Sum’tec (hybrid w/ adze)
  • 50cm Cassin X-All Mountain x2 (ice tools)

Happy hunting.

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